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What Makes a Great Stock Photo? Exposure

What Makes a Great Stock Photo? Exposure

In this guide to exposure in photography, we’ll look at the different types of photography exposure, then reveal why it’s the secret behind selecting photos with clarity, impact, and atmosphere.

What is exposure in photography? Exposure refers to the amount of light that reaches the camera’s sensor or film. Exposure affects how dark or light the final photo appears.

An essential technique for capturing detail, exposure also lends a particular mood and atmosphere to stock photos. It creates images which are, at one end of the scale, dark and brooding—or bright and stark at the other.

Clockwise, from top right: License these images via Tonet Gandia, Sebastian Vanicky, and Helena Lansky.

What Does Exposure Mean in Photography?

Exposure in photography is the amount of light which enters the camera and reaches the sensor or film, creating a brighter or darker image. 

What Is the Exposure Triangle?

The exposure triangle refers to the three camera settings that affect the level of exposure, which are shutter speed, aperture, and camera ISO.  

Fine-tuning these camera settings is a fine art. Photographers aim to capture the highest level of detail possible in both highlighted and shadowed areas of an image.

Depending on the level of natural or studio light available, you need to optimize exposure to avoid low exposure photos or “bleached out” high exposure photos. 

You can see examples of both below. . . .

In this trio of portraits, one image is underexposed (left) and too dark as a result. The image at right is overexposed, bleaching out the details of highlighted areas. In the center, the original image has perfectly balanced exposure, allowing the right level of light and dark to preserve the detail in the subject’s face. License this image via – Yuri A.

In this article, we’ll explore exposure in photography in more detail. We’ll look at the areas below to help you select stock photography with more confidence:

  1. Underexposure
  2. Overexposure
  3. Double exposure
  4. Long exposure
Aerial shot of a busy freeway at night

License this image via bugto.

1. Underexposure

You might assume that underexposure is undesirable in photography. It’s true that, in many scenarios, dark photos are the unfortunate result of a lack of light or the wrong settings applied to a camera. However, artists can intentionally create underexposed photos.

These can be beautiful in a dramatic, moody way that casts subjects and details in a different (and darker) light. 

The key to mastering underexposure in photography is to apply it purposefully. Some photographers create strong silhouettes or increase focus on a bright area of the image through contrast.

In most cases, the best low exposure photographs are actually taken in adequate light. Then, underexposure is built into the image in post-editing, without compromising on details and sharpness.  

In this image of a barn owl, the photographer has used a high level of light to capture the beautiful level of detail in the bird’s face (left). To create a moodier and more ominous result, the level of exposure can be lowered, which brings darkness to the image without compromising on detail (right). License this image via Sebastian Vanicky.  

When Should You Use Photos with Underexposure?

Underexposure in stock photos allows designers and marketers to tell a story. Its darker scenes are often associated with the cinematic, the gritty, and the emotive.

Darker photographs can hint at mystery, drama, sadness, or fear. This allows you to use low exposure photos to build a sense of drama and narrative in your projects. 

Certain types of photography will also benefit from the cozy feel that underexposure can bring to imagery.

Dark food photography, for example, can look luxurious and comforting. Meanwhile, flowers and plants have a painterly, still-life quality when shot in limited light.

Clockwise from top left: License these images via Alexander Mak, Irena Star, and sweet marshmallow.

2. Overexposure

While underexposure can result in beautiful stock photos, overexposure in photography should generally be avoided. High exposure photos are usually too bright, washing out highlights and reducing the level of detail in images. This creates an undesirable “bleached” effect. 

Overexposure can be avoided. Don’t select images that are harshly backlit. Strong sunlight or excessive studio lighting can contribute to the bleaching out of highlighted areas, too.

Opt for images taken in settings that aren’t as harsh, such as those taken within Golden Hour light. This results in a softer, duskier light that characterizes the hour just after sunrise or before sunset.

In this adorable photo of a beagle puppy at the beach, you can see how the image is perfectly exposed. It balances the strong highlights from the outdoor light with the detail of the dog’s fur (left). In an overexposed version of the image (right), the bleached out highlights create a much harsher result, and the detail of the subject is lessened considerably. License this image via dezy.

When Should You Use High Exposure Photos?

In some cases, high exposure can be an effective stylistic technique. For example, mimicking the stark light of deserts or coastlines looks great with this effect.

It can also produce dramatic lighting, in contrast to a traditional detailed and sharp photo.

Clockwise from top left: License these images via svetograph, Konstantin Kolosov, and beton studio.

3. Double Exposure

Double exposure describes a method in which the film in the camera is exposed to one image, before being rewound to expose the film to a second image, creating two exposures in one photo. The result is a layering of two images combined into one photograph, creating a surreal, dreamlike effect.

Multiple exposure is similar, involving more than two exposures in an image for a multilayered effect.

Double exposure photography can be achieved using cameras that allow for multiple exposures, but the effect can also be replicated using photo-editing software, applying blending modes to merge two images together.

A classic double exposure combination would involve a single subject, such as a portrait, layered with a broader image, such as a landscape, texture or scene, with the landscape appearing to fill whole or part of the human figure.

In this multiple exposure portrait (right), the photographer has blended the original portrait (left) with a waterfall image layered within the head of the subject, and a mountain landscape across the background of the image for even more interest and detail. License these images via SFIO CRACHO and SFIO CRACHO.

When Should You Use Double Exposure Photos?

Ethereal and mesmerizing, double exposure photography can be used to bring creativity, interest, and a strong narrative to a campaign.

You can’t help but look deeper into a double exposure photo. Therefore, it’s an effective stock photo style for holding viewers’ attention and building a mysterious story into a website design or poster layout.

Clockwise from top left: License these images via polina_egorova, Denizo71, and

4. Long Exposure

Long exposure is a beautiful photography technique that emphasizes movement in images, blurring moving elements and sharpening static ones.

The technique is created using a very slow shutter speed, that exposes the camera sensor or film to a higher level of light over a longer period, that can vary from around one second to as long as an hour. 

A slower shutter speed allows more light to reach the camera sensor, increasing and lengthening the exposure of the photo.

Stationery subjects remain sharp during the length of the exposure. Subjects in motion display more movement over the exposure time, resulting in a hybrid sharp/blurred photograph that has an ethereal, fantastical quality.

These two images of the Baily Lighthouse in Ireland are both beautiful shots, but we can see how enhancing the level of long exposure in the image at right results in a more dreamlike, fantastical interpretation of the building. License these images via Peter Krocka and Peter Krocka.

When Should You Use Long Exposure Photos?

Long exposure photos often appear hyper-real and cinematic, giving the impression of a mesmerizing moving image.

People love long exposure for its ability to highlight both the stillness and movement inherent in natural environments, such as coastlines, rivers, and stormy skies.

Although long exposure photos are based around a sense of movement, they tend to feel calm and tranquil rather than frantic. The reason for this is that they are perfectly balanced, combining static sharpness and dynamic blur. 

You may want to use long exposure photos to bring a dreamlike, tranquil quality to designs and projects. Long exposure makes for beautiful backgrounds for websites, and as they often feature natural landscapes.

They can also be used effectively for designs themed on environmental topics, sustainable energy, or travel.  

The long exposure technique can also be used to bring an ethereal quality to portraits, particularly individuals in movement, such as dancers or athletes.

Long exposure shots are a perfect choice for campaigns themed on sports, festivals, or the arts.

Clockwise from top left: License these images via OguzhanHacisalihoglu, Andy Shiels, and Iryna Kalamurza.

Conclusion: Take Your Campaigns to the Dark (or Light) Side

Exposure isn’t simply about how dark or light a photograph appears. The technique can have a huge impact on the overall mood of a design, varying from ominous and dramatic to cheerful and energized.

Armed with essential knowledge about exposure, including the ethereal techniques of double exposure and long exposure, you can now confidently choose stock photos which will bring clarity and atmosphere to your designs.

Looking for detailed landscapes or high-definition portraits for your next project? We’ve got you covered.

With Shutterstock Flex, you’ll have all-in-one access to our massive library, plus the FLEXibility you need to select the perfect mix of assets every time.

License the cover image via Sebastian Vanicky.

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